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L'Eclisse (Antonioni, 1962)


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Christian asked if I might start a thread on L'Eclisse and express some of my ideas about it -- a good opportunity for me to work through some of my thoughts on one of my favorite films. My experience with Antonioni's work began with L'Avventura and then La Notte, followed by L'Eclisse, and all three films taught me how to "read" a film in a new way. Because these masterpieces don't contain explanatory dialogue or traditional narrative/plot cues, I had to work hard to understand what was happening. I had to find the ideas, plot, themes, etc. of the films within the images themselves, including how Antonioni blocked his characters within the frame (and often, as Antonioni is famous for doing, the way he positioned his actors in relation to buildings -- to architecture -- within certain shots). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, writing about L'Avventura in his book on the film for the series BFI Film Classics, noted that the film "takes the cinema's powers of expression beyond the point where language can follow it." In other words, Antonioni used images where more traditional filmmakers relied on dialogue. 

These elements made Antonioni's early 60s films entirely modernist; they had no easily identifiable antecedents or influences. Antonioni was reacting against traditional realism in film, especially Italian Neo-Realism. This is one reason why I gravitated toward Godard as I was learning about Antonioni (and Resnais too) -- he, too, was a director who eschewed the forms and practices of the past, what in France was known as the "tradition of quality." I'm not opposed to tradition per se, but when it comes to the visual arts, I usually prefer films (or paintings) that separate themselves from realism. Given that I previously was really only familiar with Hollywood studio films, watching L'Avventura, for example, was a revelation. I thought to myself at the time: "I didn't know it was possible to do all this in cinema."

A variety of critics who have written on Antonioni have classified these three early 60s masterpieces as a "trilogy," while some have argued that, if we add Red Desert, we get a thematic "tetralogy" of films. I personally think of Red Desert as a different kind of film (more on that later if I do a separate thread on the film). L'Eclisse, to me, marks a real progression of the ideas and techniques that Antonioni set forth in L'Avventura. For example, during the opening scene in which Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) decide to end their relationship, Antonioni continually positions them in ways that clearly amplify their internal emotional distance from each other (see first image below). Vittoria strikes up a relationship with Piero (Alain Delon), and he casts their troubled interaction in the same manner (see second image, where the two are separated by a giant column) -- but then goes even further in the film's famous ending, where all we see are the streets and the public space where Vittoria and Piero had planned to meet but don't. I honestly can't think of another film that portrays alienation as powerfully as this one does. Antonioni declared that his main theme across all three films is the "sickness of eros", the impossibility of individuals to love and connect (including physically) in the age of modernity. I don't know if it's heavy-handed or not, but the shots in L'Eclisse of a building that resembles a mushroom cloud is a clear example of the kind of anxiety that Antonioni was tapping into -- the alienation the lovers feel is imposed on them by the outside world.

In the essay on L'Eclisse that accompanies the Criterion edition of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum says something to the effect that he thinks L'Eclisse is the most optimistic film within Antonioni's trilogy. I think it's the exact opposite -- it's the most enervating, the most dispiriting, the most saddening. I can't think of a different way to interpret Vittoria's and Piero's interactions throughout the film and, again, that famous ending. Which does raise an interesting question: why would I be drawn to a series of films that have such seemingly bleak ideas? It's partly because I love the film's formal qualities; it's partly because they're visually beautiful; but it's because I'm moved by them. Antonioni's trilogy is experiential, emotional, in addition to being formally groundbreaking. 

So, L'Eclisse might be the most harrowing of the three, but I also think it's the logical culmination of the two films that preceded it. Plus, he found the perfect actress for these films -- Vitti. That alone makes them worth watching. 

 

L'Eclisse3.jpg

leclisse 2.jpeg

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Thanks for starting this thread, Michael. I read it earlier today, and it's so thorough and considered that I don't have much to add. But I'll try to engage where I can.

6 hours ago, Michael S said:

My experience with Antonioni's work began with L'Avventura and then La Notte, followed by L'Eclisse, and all three films taught me how to "read" a film in a new way. Because these masterpieces don't contain explanatory dialogue or traditional narrative/plot cues, I had to work hard to understand what was happening. I had to find the ideas, plot, themes, etc. of the films within the images themselves, including how Antonioni blocked his characters within the frame (and often, as Antonioni is famous for doing, the way he positioned his actors in relation to buildings -- to architecture -- within certain shots). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, writing about L'Avventura in his book on the film for the series BFI Film Classics, noted that the film "takes the cinema's powers of expression beyond the point where language can follow it." In other words, Antonioni used images where more traditional filmmakers relied on dialogue. 

I'd like to know how many viewings of L'Eclisse you took to work through these problems. That's not a challenge. It's just that I'm on the front end, having seen the film only one time. The reason I encouraged this thread is to keep me pondering the film even as other screenings compete for my time and attention. I very much appreciated the extras on the Criterion disc, which helped me to understand more about Antonioni and this particular film. But I feel as though it's a film I could watch several more times, only slowly teasing out what it might mean, and frankly, as impressed as I was by my first viewing, that prospect is a little intimidating. I'm at a place in my life where I don't rewatch movies very often. But I sometimes think that has as much to do with the movies themselves as it has to do with my other responsibilities and needs. Maybe most movies just don't demand rewatching? This one surely seems to. And yet, I can't shake the idea that maybe, despite being bowled over by my initial viewing on a visual level, there might not be much "there" there when I watch the film again ... and again and again. I trust that wasn't your experience?

6 hours ago, Michael S said:

These elements made Antonioni's early 60s films entirely modernist; they had no easily identifiable antecedents or influences. Antonioni was reacting against traditional realism in film, especially Italian Neo-Realism. This is one reason why I gravitated toward Godard as I was learning about Antonioni (and Resnais too) -- he, too, was a director who eschewed the forms and practices of the past, what in France was known as the "tradition of quality." I'm not opposed to tradition per se, but when it comes to the visual arts, I usually prefer films (or paintings) that separate themselves from realism. Given that I previously was really only familiar with Hollywood studio films, watching L'Avventura, for example, was a revelation. I thought to myself at the time: "I didn't know it was possible to do all this in cinema."

Can you tease out this distinction a bit more? It's been a long time since my film classes, and although I can probably go grab a textbook off the shelf for this answer, I'll pose the question to you here: Are you equating neorealism with the "tradition of quality"? I can see how Antonioni's work is a reaction against realism, and perhaps neorealism. But wasn't neorealism itself a reaction to the "tradition of quality"? Sorry to have forgotten this part of cinema history. I go through periods where I'm drawn to neorealism, but as I noted in response to you in the Introductions thread, visual boldness and expressiveness like Antonioni's (in these films) can consume me when first exposed to it. It's been a long time since I've had the kind of reaction I had to L'Avventura and L'Eclisse, and that's exciting to me, even as my past experience cautions that this may just be a temporary infatuation. I won't know until the films sit with me a while longer, and until I, yes, rewatch them (and see La Notte and Red Desert; the clips of the latter in the Criterion supplements to L'Eclisse suggest the director's color films might not have the same kind of pull on me as these black-and-white films).

6 hours ago, Michael S said:

I can't think of a different way to interpret Vittoria's and Piero's interactions throughout the film and, again, that famous ending. Which does raise an interesting question: why would I be drawn to a series of films that have such seemingly bleak ideas? It's partly because I love the film's formal qualities; it's partly because they're visually beautiful; but it's because I'm moved by them. Antonioni's trilogy is experiential, emotional, in addition to being formally groundbreaking. 

So, L'Eclisse might be the most harrowing of the three, but I also think it's the logical culmination of the two films that preceded it. Plus, he found the perfect actress for these films -- Vitti. That alone makes them worth watching. 

I love your question about bleak ideas! I share it. And as I stated earlier, Vitti captured me in the two films I've seen of Antonioni's. I was saddened to look her up on Wikipedia and see that, while still with us, she's been out of the public eye for many years because of Alzheimer's (as of 2018). She's such a vital presence in L'Avventura and L'Eclisse.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Hi Christian. It's saddening to hear that Vitti has Alzheimer's. I wasn't aware of that until you mentioned it. 

In working through the challenges inherent to watching Antonioni's work, I first made my way through L'Avventura: watching the Criterion DVD (such a long time ago, now ... it came out in 2001!), then listening to the audio commentary (which was illuminating), and then watching the film at least a few more times. And then I began checking out books about Antonioni, the best of which (among those I've read) is Seymour Chatman's Antonioni: Or, the Surface of the World (UC Press, 1985). My initial reaction to L'Avventura was similar to yours, in that I was very affected by the visual quality of the film; but my experience was different in the sense that my initial viewing really compelled me to rewatch the film quite a bit over the span of a couple of years, and with each revisit, I think my appreciation of the film deepened. I can't quite recall when I got around to La Notte and L'Eclisse, but by the time I got to L'Eclisse, I was more "prepared" for it than I was for L'Avventura. Still, even then, the supplements on the Criterion DVD were also essential to my appreciation of the film (and, also, books like Chapman's). Your comments about not rewatching films much does bring a related thought to mind: there's always a law of diminishing returns eventually, even with Antonioni. Or, maybe, it's not so much that, but, rather, the fact that I just move on to new films and new filmmakers. That's true for my experience with Godard, Resnais, Hitchcock, Wilder, and others. I might watch their films many times, but then I tend to move on and rarely revisit their work after a while.

Yeah, I didn't mean to equate Neo-realism with the tradition of quality (and it's been such a long time since I first learned about both that I've forgotten a lot, and was never deeply knowledgable about either); I meant more in the sense that, just as the French critics (Godard, Truffaut, etc.) of the tradition of quality made films in reaction against that tradition, Antonioni was doing a similar thing in response to Neo-realism (whereas Neo-realism was itself a response to what preceded it). Antonioni's modernism struck me the way, say, literary modernism did when I learned about it as an undergraduate -- that response to something that, to modernists, seemed worn or limiting or old-fashioned or just worth responding to; and, to me, modernism is something that, unlike other movements, seems almost entirely new (in methods, subject matter, style, etc.).

You raise a really interesting and important issue when you wonder if all this "may just be a temporary infatuation", one of the reasons I made my comments above about familiarizing myself with certain films and filmmakers and then moving on. Also, each of us gets something out of film (or a series of films) that other viewers and cinephiles might not get, and you might find, after rewatching Antonioni's work, that there isn't much beyond the visual style. 

I am curious, are there certain films that you have rewatched a lot? I'm often surprised when this happens to me. Sometimes, I expect to love a film and then don't at all; or, vice versa, I expect to be indifferent to something and then I fall in love with it.

Quickly, to add something about L'Eclisse: modern life, in the film, is alienating and fragmented, leading to malaise or apathy or terror; I've never felt this way, but is Antonioni's vision still valid? I've wondered about this for a while.

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  • 3 months later...

I hope you're still reading, Michael, because of all the things I love about L'Eclisse - I've now seen it three times; it came off some on second viewing (from a very high place) but bounced back on third viewing, which was on Blu-ray - the one thing about it that I find, well, inexplicable, is the blackface sequence. (I was reminded of this when reading Ken's post on Showboat.)

I think I've watched all the extras, and have read the jacket essays. I don't recall discussion of the blackface sequence, although maybe it comes up in the audio commentary, which I've yet to listen to.

I would like to better understand the context of what I see during that sequence, but frankly, it's rather ghastly to sit through. Not that it ruins the film; L'Eclisse works on me in a way that few other films do. But given where our culture is right now, I can't recommend the film unreservedly. I'd like to, but I can't - even if there's a good explanation for the sequence.

I'm not demanding such from you, of course, and don't mean to make you defensive. I just thought that, given your familiarity with the film, you might have already wrestled with this very thing or could point me to some analysis of the sequence that might prove helpful. If not, that's OK. 

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Christian, I can't say this with certainly (because it's been a long time since I've watched the Criterion supplements for the film), but I think the audio commentary does include some discussion of that blackface sequence. I watched L'Eclisse when I was going through a big Antonioni/European modernism phase and some of the analyses of the film that I read at that time explained the sequence either as Antonioni's criticism of European imperialism and/or a statement on Vittoria's character arc/experience with modernity ... or something close to that. Off hand, I don't recall exactly where I found those explanations, but just a quick Google search brought up this analysis which sees the scene as a critique of imperialism, with Vittoria's actions as a romanticization of Africa, and this essay at The Dissolve, which briefly refers to the scene also as a critique of imperialism. I don't know if Antonioni ever publicly explained the meaning of Vittoria in blackface. I like to think that he did mean the scene as an indictment of European colonialism, but, then, the scene has never sat well with me, and I was really put off by it when I saw the film for the first time. I still am. One could argue that the scene, although troubling, is just a single moment in an otherwise larger movie that addresses important existential themes, and therefore the scene doesn't invalidate Antonioni's vision or the cinematic accomplishments we find within the film. And one could argue, as many have, that works of art, especially those made in earlier eras, will have values and perspectives that don't conform with our own, and it'd be counter-productive just to dismiss them outright -- something about humans and art always being imperfect, and so on. These are important caveats, but recommending the film without any reservation or disclaimer -- like you, I think that's difficult to do. And I love the film, and will always see it as one of the great exponents of European post-war cinema (and I agree with you that that sequence doesn't ruin the film altogether), but that scene really is a tough one. I guess what I'm saying is that, even though Antonioni made the film more than 50 years ago, and even if one can make the case that he really did mean something that wasn't racist or jingoistic, there would have been more appropriate and more effective ways for him to critique imperialism and to portray Vittoria's romanticization of Africa than putting her in blackface.

 

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